Rare book donation a win for book lovers

The State Library of Victoria has received an extraordinary bequest which will place it on the world map for historians and literary scholars who work on the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

The bequest was the gift of John McLaren Emmerson, QC, who died last year. Emmerson, who began collecting books in the 1960s, had two distinguished careers – first as a physicist at Oxford University. On returning home to Melbourne in the 1970s, he began a new career as an intellectual property barrister.

In addition to an extraordinary collection of early modern printed books and pamphlets, Emmerson has left a substantial endowment – A$8 million – to allow for the collection's preservation and to foster scholarly engagement with it.

The library's head of rare books Des Cowley today described the bequest as the "single greatest bequest of rare books in the State Library of Victoria's 160-year history."

The collection itself is remarkable, not simply because of the quality of individual items. Among many highlights one might choose King James I's copy of his own collected works for his son Charles I, or signed first editions of the various volumes of Laurence Sterne's 18th century precursor of the postmodern novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-1767).

It encompasses dozens and dozens of ephemeral items that together offer a rare insight into the politics of the mid- and late-17th century. Few, if any, collectors of beautiful early volumes with fine bindings also collect pamphlets, sermons and royal proclamations. The Emmerson collection runs to around 5,000 items in 3,500 volumes. It covers large numbers of religious, philosophical and political works, as well as some significant concentrations of literary material.

Usually a collection like this one is auctioned off on its owner's death, and the contents disbursed around the world - often then hidden from the sights of the scholars who might make best use of the volumes. Emmerson's act of generosity ensures that this collection remains intact.

What can we learn from these old books? Book history, the history of readership, and the material transmission of culture have all been the subject of revolutionary advances in scholarly attention in recent years. Unlike modern books, every early book is unique, because the printing process itself often involved progressive corrections and alterations. The resultant pages were then bound individually by the buyer rather than the seller.

From that point on, books had a life among readers that scholars now have begun to trace through annotations and various other marks, and through the provenance of an individual book as it passed from reader to reader in the course of its travels across more than three centuries.

Gatherings and collections of more ephemeral works tell us a great deal about the ebb and flow of opinion surrounding momentous events such as the English Revolution in the mid-17th century.

The Emmerson collection has copies of the newspapers and pamphlets that were part of a print explosion following the elimination or reduction of censorship in the 1640s. Here, we can read rival newspapers from the Royalist side (Mercurius Aulicus) and the Parliamentary side (Mercurius Civicus).

We can also follow the parliamentary proclamations, Royalist protestations, the trial and execution of Charles I, his purported spiritual diary/ reflections Eikon Basilike (several significant examples in the collection including one with a remarkable embroidered binding) and Milton's fierce, revolutionary denunciation in response, Eikonoklastes.

These are all the kinds of primary sources prized by historians, who would be hard-pressed to find such a rich collection of printed source material outside of something like the Thomason Tracts held in the British Library.

We early modern scholars have become accustomed to packing our bags and taking the long trip to explore primary sources in the great libraries of the Northern Hemisphere. Australia has made a major contribution over the years to this kind of scholarship, punching well above its weight with distinguished editors, historians and literary scholars.

It will be a great pleasure to welcome scholars from the northern hemisphere as they will certainly make their way to Melbourne to work on aspects of the Emmerson collection.

This article was originally published in The Conversation.

Paul Salzman is a Professor of English Literature.

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